Thursday, November 14, 2019

My Most Embarrassing Academic Moment

Prof. Francois Bovon

With it being the feast of the Apostle Philip, I was reminded today of perhaps my most embarrassing academic moment that still makes me cringe when I think about it. In 2005 I took a class at Harvard Divinity School on the New Testament Apocrypha with probably the foremost expert on the subject in the world, the late Professor Francois Bovon (+ 2013). It was one of my favorite classes I ever took as a graduate student, mainly because I knew he was such an expert on the subject, who had done the field work and made huge discoveries. The reason I was reminded of him today was because he discovered the most complete text of the Acts of Philip with Bertrand Bouvier in the library of Xenophontos Monastery on Mount Athos in 1974.

The class I took mainly consisted of him giving lectures, and our homework was to read around forty apocryphal texts and write a one or two page summary of each. His lectures were interesting and popular, with about forty or fifty students in the class. Being the only Greek, sometimes he would pronounce Greek words and check with me to make sure he was pronouncing them right. Having done so much field work in Greek monasteries around the world, I think he liked knowing there was at least one student in the class who understood what Greek monasteries were like. Our final grade was to be determined by one thing and one thing only - a final oral exam on any random two apocryphal writings we studied for the class.

I had read all the texts given to us to prepare for the final exam and felt myself ready. There was no way I was going to get less than an A+ on this test. On the day of the exam I checked off all the texts I studied on a sheet of paper given to us with a list of all of them, but noticed that I was missing two - the Acts of Philip and the Apocalypse of Paul. It appears I never received those because that was the one day I was sick and didn't go to class. I got a bit worried, hoping I wouldn't pick those for the oral exam. But then I thought, what are the chances I would even pick one of those two? Slim. I had no time to read them, so I hoped for the best.

I arrived in the building at Harvard Divinity School, and was told by a student aid to pick two pieces of paper from a hat, on which were written one text each I had to give my final oral exam on. I chose two pieces of paper, and two text titles came out - the Acts of Philip and the Apocalypse of Paul! My jaw literally dropped. What were the chances I would pick the two texts that I did not have and did not study at all. If I believed in such a thing, I would say the universe was literally working against me that day. I began to panic...and pray. It felt like I took this class for nothing, and was going to get an F for my efforts.

We were given about ten minutes to prepare for the oral exam from the time we chose the two titles. I sat in a room alone, trying to think how I was going to possibly get out of this one. For the Acts of Philip, I figured I would just say everything I knew about the Apostle Philip, hoping that what I was saying was in the text. I figured I could get away with some things, because in 2001 I had visited Hierapolis in Asia Minor where the Apostle Philip was martyred, so I thought I could pull off quite a bit if I stuck to the basics. As for the Apocalypse of Paul, I had no clue, but I did remember him saying in class that the Apocalypse of Paul was almost exactly the same as the Apocalypse of Peter, which I did study, so I figured I would talk about the Apocalypse of Peter and exchange the name Peter for Paul. "I just might pull this off," I thought.

My name was called and I walked into a room, where I saw Professor Francois Bovon sitting at a table with a student aid, and I was told to sit. It occurred to me at that moment that I was probably going to have the most embarrassing academic moment of my life, so I confessed to him immediately that I did not read the two texts I chose. As I explained, I realized it sounded like an excuse as if I had not read any of the texts, because who in their right mind would believe that I chose the only two texts I did not receive. Explaining the situation, I could tell they were doubting my story, so I said: "I'll do my best, nonetheless." To the best of my ability I went through what I thought and hoped were in those two texts, sweating and nervous the whole time, then they thanked me with a smile and I left. We would find out our grade when we received our report card in the mail. I felt horrible and exhausted from the stress, and above all embarrassed, but relieved it was over.

It took about a week or so until I received my report card from the classes I took at Harvard. I was anxious to see what I got from Prof. Bovon. Prepared for the worst, I opened the envelope, and was pleasantly surprised - I got a B. I was hoping for a C, though I figured I might get a D. It was then that I read through the two texts I had not studied, and reading through I realized that I actually did get a lot right, enough probably to merit a B. Still, every time I think about that exam, I cringe, because it truly was probably the most embarrassing moment of my academic life